Please Enjoy Your Stay!

The Royal Embassy Hotel (Circa 1967)
Best Western (2023)

The Bathroom Is Over Here…

During the summer of 1967, my friend Steve and I (both 16 years-old at the time), had jobs as bellhops at what was then the very prestigious Royal Embassy Hotel in downtown Montreal, which is now a Best Western. Although now-a-days I don’t think a hotel that had a mirrored dance floor on the 15th floor would be considered prestigious! The hotel was situated on the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets, one of the busiest intersections in the city at the time. And it was even busier that summer because the World’s Fair, or Expo 67 as it was called back then, was in full swing and the hotel was hopping with guests (even some famous ones) from all over the world.

The job was pretty straightforward. You waited for the bell captain to ring his rather annoying bell before yelling: “Next,” and whoever’s turn it was, would scurry over to the captain’s station to be given their next check-in, check-out, or if you were really unlucky, the dreaded “room change.” And yes, we had to wear uniforms much like the one pictured above, making us look like extras from a “B” movie! There were a couple of bell captains at this hotel working different shifts, but the one I remember, as he always seemed to be working the same shift as us, was a miserable little man with a Napoléon complex named Alain Mousard. He was less than five feet tall, had an annoying voice that his French accent only made marginally better, and a vicious temper. And he hated me! I can’t remember how many times he fired me that summer, only to call the next day, saying: “Où es-tu?” (Where are you?). My French was not very good back then, which is why he spoke French to us, just to make us squirm, before translating. When I would respond: “Well, you fired me yesterday!” He would reply: “Mais non, Marlin (This was his nickname for me because he thought I looked like Marlon Brando – I didn’t), c’était juste un malentendu Marlin, viens travailler totu de suite, j’ai besoin de toi!” (That was just a misunderstanding, Marlin. Come to work right away. I need you). And I would, until the next firing, because the tip money was just too good to pass up. We are talking about as much as $300 some weeks, which in 2023 dollars is equivalent to $2,665. Not exactly chump change to a couple of sixteen-year-olds!

As I mentioned at the outset, there was a steady stream of well-known people coming in and out of the hotel on a regular basis. Three of the better known celebrities that I remember staying at the hotel that summer were Marlene Dietrich, Vladziu Valentino Liberace (can you imagine how much luggage he had?), and Walter Lantz (the Disney animator responsible for Woody Woodpecker, among others). These stars, and other well-heeled guests visiting from the U.S, were coveted check-ins/check-outs for us bellhops, as they were tipping in U.S dollars and in 1967 every $1 was equivalent to $1.25 CDN.  

Then there were the room changes, the bane of our existence as bellhops. These happened when someone either requested to be moved to another room, or there was some screw-up by the hotel. There were a couple of reasons for why we hated these assignments: Firstly, the guests were not usually around when these changes were happening, which meant no tips. Secondly, too often the guests had already unpacked, and you had to rifle through drawers, closets, and bathrooms to collect all their belongings…yuck! On one of my shifts, I was the unfortunate recipient of one of these room changes, but it did have a happy ending. Two opera singers (husband and wife) had requested separate rooms for their stay, as this was their preferred arrangement while touring. The hotel had screwed up and put them into one room, promising them to do their best to accommodate their request for separate rooms. When this was done, I was the one going up to the room they were now in to transport their belongings to two different rooms. However, when I knocked on their door, the husband answered, as they were both having dinner in their room. The bad news: They had both unpacked, and I probably don’t need to tell you how much clothing two opera performers who were on tour for a couple of months had! It took me well over two hours to make the change. The good news: When I brought them the keys to their new individual rooms, I got a $200 tip, American!

When Steve and I discovered that the hotel had this mirrored dance floor, we both looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, suggesting that we really didn’t understand the significance of this. Hey, it was 1967 and we had led a sheltered life until then! When we finally realized what it meant…I think I’ll just leave it at that! Because of this mirrored floor, the hotel attracted a certain type of clientele, if you know what I mean, who were not necessarily staying at the hotel. On this front, Mr. Mousard would put on a different “hat,” so to speak, and became the de-facto pimp for certain guests requiring “special” services. Ah, the machinations of a big hotel! Many years later, when I read John Irving’s wonderful 1981 book, The Hotel New Hampshire, I could only nod my head in that knowing way!

When the summer was over, and Steve and I had to return for our final year of high school, the job came to an end, but not our dealings with the hotel. Steve and I were being paid a wage of $0.65 per hour, which at the time was $0.35 below the minimum wage at that time. Yes, you read that right, the minimum wage in Quebec in 1967 was $1.00 per hour! We didn’t complain about this while we were employed, because the tips more than made up for the shortfall, but as soon as we quit, Steve filed a complaint with the Minimum Wage Commission, and several months later we both received checks, which rewarded us the $0.35 for every hour that we worked that summer!

Many years later when I was in the workforce and travelling quite a bit, my colleagues would always ask me why I tipped more than usual in hotels for services rendered. I think you all know the answer to that one!

Los Angeles 2023

“Do You See What I See?”

I am certain that many you have heard and/or read about President Biden and the “document” scandal that is rocking the nation. And as they say, the proverbial you-know-what has hit the fan in Washington. Wait, does this sound familiar? And it would appear by all accounts that Republicans across the land are basking, for a change, on the other side of the spotlight. Why shouldn’t they? Everyone knows that collectively they have been the “butt of the joke” for quite some time, with very little prospect of that changing anytime soon. They have even taken it from their “side” of the aisle, so why shouldn’t they have their 15 minutes of fame? Or, in this case, 15 minutes of “nah-nah-nah-nah-nahhh. I am rubber. You are glue. Bounces off me. And sticks to you!”  All of this at the expense of someone else, of course, because that’s the way it goes in politics and, unfortunately, in other facets of our society.

Am I happy about these turn of events and what’s happening? HELL NO! But that is really besides the point. Why? Because as is almost always the case in events such as these, the “reality” of the situation, any political situation really, will almost always give way to the “perception” of the situation. Taken another way and twisting the words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it,” we get: Those who cannot remember what “reality” is, are condemned to trusting thier “perceptions” of that reality. We only need to look back at what has transpired over the last couple of years in this country to understand this. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau said it best: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

All of this got me thinking about a book from my past, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell (1954/56). Now, I will grant you that the first of these “longish” essays, “The Doors of Perception,” was written under a mescaline fog, and you can give yourself a pass if you feel like our entire government appears at time to be under that same fog! However, for some reason the book still resonates for me, even though I read it in the early 70s, which probably says more about me than the book, but I digress! It is by no means a perfect book, but when Huxley delves into relating his psychedelic experiences to the mystical, religious, and artistic, it begins to get intriguing. While “The Doors Of Perception” is really a mix of description and discussion of these links, “Heaven and Hell” delves much deeper into those “linkages.”

My absolute favorite quote from that book goes like this: “But the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance, yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

When I read this again just the other day, about 50 years removed from the first time I read it, I was astounded, to say the least. And while that astonishment was partly to do with the words themselves, I was equally astonished at the fact that if you simply reversed the three “changes” in that quote, you would be talking about you-know-who (Y.K.W)! So, while it is very unlikely that Y.K.W. would ever go through the door, if he did, and unfortunately came back, instead of “wiser and less cocksure,” Y.K.W. would be more cocksure and stupider, instead of “happier but less self-satisfied,” Y.K.W. would be more miserable and infinitely self-satisfied; and finally, in a slightly more succinct form, instead of “humbler in acknowledging his ignorance, yet better equipped to comprehend,” Y.K.W. basks in his ignorance, and doesn’t understand shit!

The above also brought to mind an aphorism; a little snippet of historical humor that has been around for quite some time. It goes like this: “Politicians and diapers need to be changed often, and for the same reason.” Attributed to Mark Twain, as are most of these types of gems, it’s witty, funny, poignant, and tinged with truth; more truth than we might want to acknowledge. So, let’s just say for the moment that Twain was right, and politicians should be changed…very often. The big question that this begs is: Would it make any difference? Well, that would most likely depend upon what your “perception” is. But this is my “perception,” so take it for what it’s worth. Yeah, I know, not a whole lot!

Los Angeles 2023

If You Build It…

If the title and the picture of a man standing in a cornfield led you to believe this was going to be about the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner as Iowan farmer Ray, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Or perhaps you thought it was going to be about the 2015 documentary “If You Build It” about a group of high school students who discover their inner architects over the course of an academic year…sorry, wrong again! Perhaps the second photo to the right of the cornfield, the one of a model car kit, had you thinking: What does this have to do with imaginary baseball players? Nothing. So, allow me to clear this up for you.

This is about a teenage hobby that I shared with a good friend of mine for several years: building model cars from the kits like the one pictured above. Hobbies, of course, come and go, and I haven’t built a model car for at least 56 years, yet the memory of those days with Mike, toiling away in his basement and trying not to get high from the glue fumes are firmly implanted in my brain. While I was fairly decent at building these cars, Mike was on a whole other level in terms of his meticulous devotion to the craft. I may have been a part of the model car building culture at the time, but it was really by association only. For example, his completed model cars could be compared to the original Mona Lisa, while mine looked more like the Mona Lisa poster you would buy at a gas station! That is why it did not surprise me, or our other two close friends, when he decided to become a dentist!

I would open a new box, take out the instructions and plastic pieces, and start building. Mike, on the other hand, would open the box, take out the instructions, and read them several times, studying them like it was for a final exam. I would already be gluing pieces together, while he was just starting to take all the pieces out of the box and writing labels for them with detailed notes on the best way to attach one part to another. When we advanced to the point of painting these model cars, his meticulousness went into overdrive! He built painting stations out of cardboard, fashioned wire hangers to hold each part so there would be not fingerprints on the paint and used at least three coats of paint on every piece, no matter how small. When he was done with a car, it was truly a beautiful thing to behold. He still has some of the better ones proudly displayed on a shelf in his home. I, on the other hand, do not!

When this memory popped into my head a few days ago, it got me thinking about hobbies and their similarities and differences to interests. Many of us have been asked when applying for a job, or when we are tweaking our resumés, what are your hobbies and interests. The easiest way to separate the two is to think of hobbies as “activities,” something that you are physically or mentally doing, whereas interests are things you might want to be doing, but they have not reached the point of “doing” yet. There are a “gazillion” different hobbies, and there is really no such thing as a finite list of what they are. A quick Internet search gave me a list of 250 hobbies, including everything from Acroyoga (I have no idea what that is!) to Zumba!

While hobbies are great activities to have and do, and, as far as I’m concerned, the more the better, there can be a problematic aspect to them. This occurs when one decides the following: “Hey, I really love doing this I should make this hobby my job.” Now, this may work for some people, I mean, can you think of anything better than taking something you absolutely love to do and making it your job and earning money from your hobby? However, there are times when the job makes the hobby less appealing because…well, it’s a job and now the hobby that used to give you pleasure has all the “baggage” that comes with being gainfully employed. You know, meetings, more meetings, deadlines, structure, dress code, annoying colleagues, annoying boss, jamming photocopiers…and the list goes on and on! I write from experience on this one, as I used to live, eat, and breathe skiing when I was growing up, and, for various reasons and opportunities, that love for the sport/hobby turned into several different jobs over the course of about twenty years. While I still did ski for pleasure during this time, it was much less frequently, and towards the end of my stint in the industry, it was a couple of times in a season. When I moved on to a new vocation, the skiing came roaring back into my life. So, for me, one of the big perks of being retired is that any new hobby I get into, like writing, for example, has exactly zero chance of turning into a job, and for that I am grateful!

Los Angeles 2023

“What A Deal, Let’s Buy Twelve!”

The other day I was leafing through the newspaper and came across the obligatory, post-Christmas flyers beckoning me to buy, buy, buy…And, naturally, save big time! You all know the ads for stores like Target, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Best Buy, and on and on it goes. And as I was looking at these, for some reason what popped into my head was the well-known aphorism: “Keeping up with the Joneses.” What this refers to, of course, is doing something, especially when it comes to purchasing, in order to show that you have as much money and “taste” as other people, not necessarily because you want or need the object. One of my favorite jokes about this very concept goes like this: These two friends and neighbors, Fred and Sam are always trying to impress and outdo the other. One day, they are both driving to work and are stopped at the same traffic light. Fred glances over to his right and sees Sam in a brand new Mercedes Benz. Sam rolls down his window and says: “How do you like my new car?” Fred nods, and as soon as the light changes, speeds off. The very next day, they meet at the same stoplight and now Fred is in his own, new Mercedes Benz. He rolls down his window and says: “How do you like my new car?” Sam responds: “Nice, hang on I’m getting a call on my new car phone.” The next day, same scenario, except now Fred calls Sam on his new phone. Sam answers, but before Fred can say anything, Sam says: “Hang on, my other phone is ringing!”

This concept and the phrase, keeping up with the Joneses, can be traced back to a cartoon strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, “Keeping Up With The Joneses,” which ran from 1913 – 1940 in “The New York World” and was syndicated in many other publications. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the McGinis family and their constant struggle to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses.

However, there is a much earlier example of this type of “competitive” consumption, but with a twist. The twist is when you buy or receive something as a gift, which in turn makes you re-evaluate your other possessions. It is known as the “Diderot Effect,” a term coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken in his 1988 book: Culture and Consumption and is based on an essay (1769): “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” written by French philosopher Denis Diderot. As the story goes, Diderot received a beautiful new red satin dressing gown as a gift, and realized as he was walking around his home, that all his possessions did not live up to the new robe.

His exact words: “I was the master of my old gown and I have become a slave to my new one!” Less than a century later, Thorstein Veblen wrote about “conspicuous consumption,” the practice of purchasing goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth, in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

All of which brings me back to big box retailers and the lure of “cheap” merchandise in quantity, the latter being the biggest problem. Everyone knows and, I am certain, has struggled with the words “need” and “want” when it comes to purchasing. And this is certainly an issue when it comes to these huge discount stores in particular. What is often never considered when shopping at these stores is “normal usage.” And when your consumption of goods exceeds your normal usage…Well, Houston, we have a problem. For example (and please keep in mind that these figures are all hypothetical): A family of four – two adults, two teenage boys (14-17) – “normally” consume six rolls of toilet paper a week (24 rolls per month). The take their first trip to one of these mega stores and purchase several large packages of toilet paper (often because these stores only carry large packages of goods) and are set for a long time based on their “normal usage.” However, by the time they take their third trip to one of these stores, this same family of four are now using 36 rolls of toilet paper per month, or an increase of 50%! Why, may you ask? Well, it’s a type of supply and demand, as the more that is available to you, the more likely it is for you to overuse!

Another, slightly different, example of this supply and demand comes from a friend of mine who many years ago took the Xerox sales training course. What my friend was taught went like this. You go to a company with, let’s say, twenty employees. You ask whoever is in charge of purchasing how many photocopies they make per month. When you receive this information (for argument sake let’s say 1,000 copies) you inform the person that the new model T546rty Xerox can make the same number of copies in half the time it takes your current copier, and for the same price. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to increase office productivity by reducing the time employees spend making copies, especially at no extra cost? Seemingly a no-brainer decision. However, when the same salesman goes back to the same company a year later, for some unexplained reason they are now making 2,000 copies a month, with the same twenty employees! The reason for this is that the speed of the new machine just makes it easier to copy things, and so they do. And then the process starts all over again…this new machine can…blah, blah, blah, blah. Next thing you know, the company has moved to a larger office space, not because they have more employees, but because they need more space to accommodate all the paper! Life is complicated.

Happy New Year!

Los Angeles 2022